Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrust conventional capabilities back into the fore, particularly cruise missiles. Russia has demonstrated its hypersonic capabilities multiple times, testing an anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile in May and a super-heavy Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capable of carrying hypersonic glide vehicles in April. It has also used hypersonics in combat against Ukrainian targets.
Hypersonics have not transformed the strategic situation within Ukraine. But their growing employment and obvious Russian and Chinese technical advances demonstrate a sobering reality: the U.S. and its allies must contend with hypersonic-armed adversaries.
The U.S. has improved its hypersonic offensive capabilities. But its hypersonic defenses lag behind. The American defense establishment should apply the same focus and energy to hypersonic defense as it has to hypersonic offense. Specifically, the U.S. should retain the same rapid program development protocols it has used to accelerate hypersonic development for hypersonic defenses, increase funding commensurately with the threat, accelerate platform testing, and coordinate with valuable allies on hypersonic questions. Without intense focus, the U.S. risks remaining vulnerable to a crucial capability in an impending confrontation with China or Russia.
The first consideration is the nature of the hypersonic threat. “Hypersonic” describes speed. Typical cruise missiles are either subsonic – like the U.S.’ Tomahawk, with a top speed of 560 miles per hour – or marginally supersonic – like the Russian Kalibr and P-800 or Chinese KD-88, which range between Mach 1 and 2,300 and 3,760 miles per hour. Hypersonic weapons, by contrast, travel at Mach 5 or above, nearly 4,000 miles per hour.
Hypersonics have three general variants. Aero-ballistic weapons, for example the Kinzhal that Russia used in Ukraine, is boosted to top speed by a rocket engine but then transitions to unpowered flight following a ballistic, that is, gravity-based, arcing trajectory. Hypersonic glide vehicles, like the Russian Avangard or Chinese DF-ZF, deploys from a missile and, as the name suggests, glides to its target at hypersonic speeds. The final variant, hypersonic scramjet cruise missiles, are powered throughout flight by air-breathing engines designed for supersonic combustion, allowing it to sustain speed.
As Mr. Biden so candidly stated after Russia’s April hypersonic use in Ukraine, “it’s almost impossible to stop”. Because hypersonic weapons move so much faster than traditional missiles, tracking becomes complex. In turn, hypersonics can follow different flight paths than traditional missiles, maneuvering at high speeds to evade defenses, or shifting trajectories to confuse radar systems.
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